Cannabis and the Second Green Revolution with Dr. David Joly
As cannabis sheds its counter-culture roots and moves increasingly into the mainstream, New Brunswick companies and researchers are at the forefront. At Université de Moncton, Dr. David Joly and his team of graduate students are conducting research that could help produce cannabis with a higher concentration of useful compounds.
Two of the plant’s most well-known compounds are THC (responsible for the “high”) and CBD (which doesn’t cause a high). So what might more potent cannabis mean for consumers? As a start, it means consumers would end up paying less, because stronger cannabis would decrease production costs for licensed producers, and the savings would be reflected in the sale price.
THC and CBD (among other compounds) are known as cannabinoids and together with terpenes – the molecules behind the plant’s distinctive, skunky smell – are studied around the world for their potential health benefits.
“What people may not know is that these molecules are ‘defense molecules’ produced by cannabis to defend itself against diseases and pests,” says Dr. Joly. Most of his projects focus on interactions between plants and microbes. By studying how plants become infected, he can learn how plants defend themselves. “By getting a better understanding of how cannabis interacts with pathogens [like diseases and pests], we will get a better understanding of how those molecules are produced, their diversity, and how to get the plant to produce more of them!”
Though THC and CBD are known right now as the plant’s “star” compounds, research is showing that the plant’s other compounds could have medical uses. More research is still needed, though Dr. Joly believes there’s potential to eventually produce custom plants that can help with specific medical needs – kind of like the cannabis equivalent of a super-specific latte order.
We’ve supported Dr. Joly since he first began research at the university in 2013. Over the years, he’s received several rounds of funding from NBIF’s Research Assistantships Initiative, which allowed him to pay the students working on his projects. Last year, we helped fund the purchase of a state-of-the-art confocal microscope. We’ve also helped him get additional growth cabinets so he can grow hemp plants.
Dr. Joly first started working on cannabis in 2015 through a project with Organigram funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), and later by NBIF. In Fall 2018, he received a major grant to continue researching cannabis from several funders, including NBIF, Organigram, and others.
Much of the research into cannabis is only from recent years. For most of the past century, it was excluded from scientific studies due to its status as an illicit drug. As a result, cannabis hasn’t benefitted from the breeding and research programs that have helped major crops like wheat, rice and corn. Research into these traditional crops has helped to tremendously increase their production, in what is known as the “Green Revolution.”
“Biotechnologies and genomics are often viewed as a second Green Revolution,” says Dr. Joly. “Indeed, they can greatly accelerate the development of novel varieties, which would allow the cannabis community to fill the gap created by decades of prohibition.”
While cannabis is best-known for its psychoactive effects, Dr. Joly points out that the plant has many other beneficial compounds. Meanwhile, the plant’s hemp variety produces tasty seeds and fibres that can be used for clothing, paper, composites, and more.
“New Brunswick is working very hard to be recognized as a leader in the cannabis industry. And research will play a big role, as it can help optimize cannabis cultivation (and hereby reduce costs), reduce the usage of pesticides or develop novel drugs,” says Dr. Joly. “We need to develop a strong breeding program to meet the industry’s immediate and future needs, and we need to do this here!”
Outside of work, Dr. Joly co-hosts a university radio show. He also enjoys travelling, hiking, and biking with his family.
“I guess saying I like gardening would be too cliché.”